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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

An Introduction to the Vatican Museums

What are the Vatican Museums?

The Vatican Museums are a group of museums with an extensive range of works gathered or commissioned by the popes over the centuries, including the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, and the largest collection of ancient sculpture in the world.

Vatican museum entrance

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What is in the Vatican Museums?

The Vatican Museums contain one of the greatest collections of art in the world. Other galleries may match the broad span and myriad origins of its artefacts, but none can also offer works such as entire rooms painted by Raphael or the ceiling frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. The Vatican Museums are immense, and it’s impossible to see everything in a single visit. Select the sections that interest you the most and head straight there. And remember, there’s a lot of walking: more than seven kilometres if you want to cover all the museums!

Most first-time visitors will want to head straight to the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel. On your way, you’ll pass a long corridor divided into three sections: The Gallery of the Candelabra, which takes its name from the pairs of ancient marble candelabra placed on either side of its arches; the Gallery of Tapestries, portraying scenes from the life of Christ executed by pupils of Raphael; and the Gallery of Maps, which features intriguing map frescoes depicting Italy’s and the Church’s possessions in the late 16th century.

Vatican museum entrance stairs

In the Raphael Rooms, you can marvel at works like the School of Athens (found in the Stanza della Segnatura), a tribute to philosophy that depicts an elderly Plato (with his finger pointed up) and Aristotle, his student, engaged in animated conversation. Their discussion takes place inside a spacious building that was inspired by Donato Bramante’s design for St Peter’s Basilica. Raphael, who clearly enjoyed painting his contemporaries into historical tableaux, painted himself second to last in the group of hatted gentlemen on the right. Just in front is Bramante, in the guise of the ancient mathematician Euclid, who is bending over, compass in hand, to explain a problem to his students. Raphael’s vibrant painting, together with the other three walls, is meant to represent the humanist four-way division of culture: philosophy, theology, poetry and justice.

The Pio-CIementino Museum, with its wonderful collection of Greek and Roman sculptures, is also not to be missed. It could be argued that the foundations of the entire Vatican collection were laid right there when, in 1503, Pope Julius II placed a statue of Apollo in the Belvedere Courtyard, the statue ever since known as the Apollo Belvedere. Clement XIV significantly enlarged the collection in the 18th century, thanks to local excavations and donations from antiquarians, and the museum was opened in 1771. The museum’s octagonal courtyard also houses the famous Laocoön group, a 1st-century BC marble depiction of a Trojan priest and his two sons with vicious snakes coiled around their limbs.

As you can imagine, over the centuries successive popes have built up a wonderful collection of paintings, which can be found in the Pinacoteca. Although not a particularly large collection, it does include Raphael’s Transfiguration, Madonna di Foligno, and his Coronation of the Virgin, all in the same room. There are also paintings by Caravaggio, Fra Angelico, Bellini, and Titian, to name just a few.

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